The Oak Hill unified basketball team didn’t play in last year’s championship game, but it was still on hand for it, however, traveling to Lisbon High School to soak in an event it hoped to soon participate in itself.
“A lot of my players went to the state championship game last year. It was a really big event … (and) my kids remember that,” said Oak Hill coach Peter Dennis. “I had probably four or five kids come back at the beginning of this year and tell me all they did was practice.
“They’re set to take on the challenge.”
Oak Hill will have as good a chance as any team to be playing in that game. The Raiders are the top seed in the South region for the unified tournament that began Monday, with defending champion Hampden Academy occupying the North’s top spot. Oak Hill is followed in the South region by Deering/Portland, Lisbon, Lewiston, Oxford Hills, Edward Little, Bonny Eagle, Wells, Westbrook, Massabesic, Marshwood/Noble and Poland. Hampden is followed in the North by Carrabec/Madison, Foxcroft, Bucksport, Skowhegan, Mount View and Oceanside.
There was a change to the playoff format for this season. After the regular season finished, teams were given the choice of either stopping for the year, playing in the competitive playoffs or opting for a more recreational festival, which will take place at Winslow High School, Fryeburg Academy, Falmouth High School and Winthrop High School. Local teams choosing the festival were Winslow, Nokomis, Waterville (playing at Winslow) and Winthrop/Maranacook, Hall-Dale/Richmond and Messalonskee (playing at Winthrop).
There were four preliminary games in the South region (Oxford Hills-Poland, Edward Little-Marshwood/Noble, Bonny Eagle-Massabesic, Wells-Westbrook), and none in the North. With only seven teams, Hampden has a bye into the regional semifinals.
Oak Hill earned its top seed with a 6-0 record, and returns to the playoffs after reaching the semifinals in the North the year before. The Raiders will play either Wells or Westbrook Wednesday.
“(It’s been) positive, the kids are really excited,” Dennis said. “Some kids were afraid to play, played and are so glad they did. … They really grabbed onto it, it’s something special to them.”
One of those players who had to be coaxed into playing, Alexis Bean, has become one of the team’s top scorers. Josh Leavitt has been one of the Raiders’ top players as well.
“She’s been the high scorer in two games. It’s lit her life right up,” Dennis said. “(Leavitt’s) really come to the front of the team here.”
Dennis also mentioned the work of the team’s partners in helping Oak Hill turn in a strong season.
“My partners have really stepped up. I have two new partners this year, and they’ve made it a really positive experience for the kids,” he said. “That’s the best thing, to see these kids. I don’t even run a practice. I tell (my partners) what I’d like to see and they go out and they do it.”
The chance for a Gold Ball is what the Oak Hill players are after, but their coach said the season isn’t hinging on what happens in the playoffs.
“That’s really what their goal is, but I don’t think that’s the end-all,” Dennis said. “I think they’re really proud to be in first place.”
Carrabec/Madison drew the North’s second seed after going 4-2 during the regular season, and will draw No. 7 Oceanside in Wednesday’s North quarterfinals. No. 5 Skowhegan, which went 3-3 in its first season, gets No. 4 Bucksport, while No. 6 Mount View (3-5) draws No. 3 Foxcroft, which lost only one game — to top seed Hampden, by one point.
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638